Salisbury is the perfect location for a very English type of murder. But what happened on the fourth of this month in the cathedral city was far from a bloodless Agatha Christie crime. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the center of the city has landed them in the hospital, where they remain critically ill. Also hospitalized was a police detective who was one of the first officials to enter the Skripal home after the attack. The discovery that the nerve agent Novichok was used in the assassination attempt has also led dozens of residents of Salisbury, including people who dined in the same restaurant as the Skripals, to face the possibility that they too have come into contact with the nerve agent.
The release of such a deadly nerve agent in a crowded city has done many things, not the least of which is to throw a clear line into the middle of Great Britain’s political and public life. Prime Minister Theresa May and her government swiftly concluded (at the advice of the intelligence agencies) that the only possible culprits could be the Russians. But the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was never going to give up a life of allegiances that easily. Both Corbyn and his closest adviser and spokesman, Seumas Milne, are the sort of leftists who do not so much hate modern Russia as feel let down by it — failing, as it did, to hold together in its glorious USSR form.
Since becoming leader of his party, Corbyn has done a great deal to try to recast himself as ready for his potential incarnation as prime minister. Corbyn and his camp present his years of chumming up to IRA terrorists as “peace-making.” He is pals with every available anti-Semite at home and in the Middle East — but this is only evidence of yet more “peace-making.” As for his unyielding fealty to every Marxist despot from Castro to Chávez — it’s just part of his endless search for equality and fairness for all.
Of course the hard beliefs that actually lurk beneath such bromides occasionally become apparent. In recent days they have risen to the surface.
The first instinct of Corbyn when Her Majesty’s Government fingered Russia as the culprit was to call for evidence. No bad thing in itself, but one gets the sense that, for Corbyn, the evidence might never be quite enough to justify his reaching a conclusion he would gladly put off until at least such a date as people stop asking. And then there was the politicking. Americans are no strangers to the use of the Russians as a means to pursue domestic political goals. But even American politicians would probably not stoop so low as to make use of a nerve-agent attack in an American city to score partisan points.
Corbyn’s second instinct — after providing smoke for Russia — was to attack the Conservative party for allegedly having taken money from dodgy Russians. Party funding is almost as much of a mess in the U.K. as it is in the U.S. (the one advantage being that the sums in Britain are infinitely smaller). But political parties are not allowed to take money from people who are not British citizens. Corbyn issued blanket attacks on the Conservatives for taking money from U.K. citizens who were born in Russia: We should deem this a slimy generalization, just as we would if — whenever problems erupted from the Indian subcontinent — the Conservatives attacked Corbyn for taking donations from British citizens who happened to be from Pakistan.
But the most fascinating aspect of the hill that Corbyn showed himself willing to die on (and polls suggested that if not dying, he is certainly suffering for his stance) is one that came from a lobby briefing. Last week, as Corbyn was taking flak for his stance, Seumas Milne was quoted telling journalists:
I think obviously the government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intelligence, which is problematic to put it mildly.
Past intelligence failures will obviously keep coming back to haunt intelligence services and governments in Britain and America for years to come. But it was the norm, until recently, for people in public life — especially those aspiring to public office — to at least view the intelligence services as being on their side. Principally because they were seen to be on the side of the national interest.
It was the norm, until recently, for people in public life — especially those aspiring to public office — to at least view the intelligence services as being on their side.
In Jeremy Corbyn and his spokesman, we have a different type of figure: people who view their country’s intelligence services as though they are enemies. The fact that the same people have a tendency to view any and all of the nation’s enemies as friends may be entirely coincidental. Or it may not. Either way it is a reminder of how dangerous it is that people who should be sitting in their family basement wearing tin hats are only a few government slip-ups away from controlling the state they have always abhorred.